Why Centre's Decision To Assess Students In Grades 3, 5 and 8 For Learning Outcomes Is An Important Reform
SAFAL will not only test learning outcomes of students but also the performance of schools.
Unlike board exams whose goal is to stream students in upper grades (including college) and into different streams, SAFAL’s aim is to test students on learning outcomes.
Ticking off another item in the National Education Policy (NEP) approved by Union cabinet exactly one year ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched SAFAL (Structured Assessment For Analysing Learning), a competency-based annual assessment introduced by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) to evaluate students in grades 3, 5 and 8 for learning outcomes.
Point 40 in section 4 of the NEP had proposed such a system where students are assessed regularly and not only via board exams in Grade 10 and 12. The suggestion read:
To track progress throughout the school years, and not just at the end of Grades 10 and 12 - for the benefit of students, parents, teachers, principals, and the entire schooling system in planning improvements to schools and teaching-learning processes - all students will take school examinations in Grades 3, 5, and 8 which will be conducted by the appropriate authority.
These examinations would test achievement of basic learning outcomes, through assessment of core concepts and knowledge from the national and local curricula, along with relevant higher-order skills and application of knowledge in real-life situations, rather than rote memorization.
The Grade 3 examination, in particular, would test basic literacy, numeracy, and other foundational skills. The results of school examinations will be used only for developmental purposes of the school education system, including for public disclosure by schools of their overall (anonymized) student outcomes, and for continuous monitoring and improvement of the schooling system.
As far as coverage is concerned, SAFAL is different from National Achievement Survey (NAS) which is a sample based assessment while SAFAL will be census assessment like board exams where all students will be participating.
But unlike board exams whose goal is to stream students in upper grades (including college) and into different streams, SAFAL’s aim is to test students on learning outcomes which can act as diagnostic tool for students and their parents so that required interventions can be made at lower grades rather than finding it out at Grade 10 or 12 when its too late.
SAFAL will not only test learning outcomes of students but also the performance of schools. The initiative mandates public disclosure by schools of their overall (anonymized) student outcomes. This will help parents make informed choices about which schools to pick for their children. It will also give us a continuous report card of sorts of India’s school education system as a whole.
A highly impressive part in SAFAL is the assessment framework.
“The framework design specifically factors in assessment at a given proficiency level of the test taker. Thus, for a given grade, the framework would test student proficiency on two levels below grade level. In simple terms, the assessment for a Grade 5 student would account for the proficiency level of a child who may be at a Grade 3, 4 or 5 level. The items developed will have diverse Grade level texts and help to account for the disparity in proficiency levels of students’ learning,” the CBSE document on SAFAL says.
This shows that designers are deeply aware of how the schooling system works in India. As students pass from one grade to another, they seem to forget most of the things learned in the past years. In SAFAL, we finally have a tool to measure that factor in real time. More importantly, one hopes that this will nudge schools away from a system of rote learning to competency and skills based one.
One of the biggest tragedies that have befallen Indian education system in last one decade has been the drop seen in learning outcomes of school children. It’s not a coincidence that this fall started soon after The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act or Right to Education Act was passed by the Parliament in 2009 which came into force from 2010-11 academic session. Below is the graph from the ASER report which gives us the trend in learning outcomes from 2004-05 to 2014-15.
The only thing that changed in 2010 was that the RTE act came into being. It had instituted ’no detention policy’ which mandated that irrespective of the scores of students, they will be automatically upgraded to higher grade (until Class VIII) after completion of the academic year. It’s not that we were doing great before 2010, just that the poor performance turned to abysmal after the RTE act.
India was ranked 72 of 74 in 2009 in the OECD PISA rankings which test reading, math and science for elementary school children. Instead of focusing on improving learning outcomes in schools, the then Manmohan Singh government simply decided to not take part in the rankings.
Thankfully, the draft NEP recognised the ill effects of RTE’s ‘no detention policy’ on learning outcomes and had recommended that ‘The recent amendments to the RTE Act on continuous and comprehensive evaluation and the no detention policy must be reviewed. This Policy states that there should be no detention of children in Grades up to 8; instead, schools must ensure that children are achieving age-appropriate learning levels and are receiving the relevant extra support (e.g., through remedial support programmes such as the NTP and RIAP) in every instance where it is required.’
The SAFAL policy is actualisation of that very recommendation. One expects that this combined with reforms in curricula where students are free to take up subjects as per their interests and appear in board examinations with that much flexibility and get admissions in higher education system where they can benefit from the academic bank of credits initiative (exiting the college mid-way with a certificate to take up other course or job and return to complete the degree) - all will prove to be game changers ten years down the line.
Of course, it goes without saying that creating a good system will only help if the content taught is equally commendable. The judgement is out on that one.
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